Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese queen-consort of Charles II, is typically given credit for the initial popularization of tea in England. Tea had been popular among the aristocracy in Catherine’s home country of Portugal for years, as it was considered an exotic luxury by the rich. Catherine’s affection for tea spread to her courtiers and eventually to the upper classes. Tea is a rarity in that it maintained its popularity even after spreading to the lower classes.
This proliferation of tea-drinking among all social strata in England also led to controversy over its effects on health – both physical and spiritual. William Cobbett, an English farmer and journalist, expressed his views that tea was a “destroyer or health” and “debaucher of youth” in his 1821 book Cottage Economy. He asserts that tea “corrupts boys as soon as they are able to move from home, and does little less for the girls to whom the gossip of the tea table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel.” According to Cobbett, the man who drinks tea “makes his miserable progress towards that death which he finds ten or fifteen years sooner than he would have found it had he made his wife brew beer instead of making tea.”
It seems ludicrous today to claim that tea – beloved by nanas everywhere – was once decried as a beverage that led to a life of prostitution followed by a premature death.